Virtual Reality Has Its Day

By Barnaby Marshall ● September 10, 2015 11:30

The current buzz around virtual reality is hard to avoid – even old-media stalwart Time Magazine has jumped on the bandwagon with a recent cover story on the still-nascent industry, featuring geeky looking Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey sporting a pair of his company’s Rift VR headsets. Those who recall the hype and promise that surrounded the technology in the early ‘90s will be forgiven for thinking they’ve seen this movie before. But this time things really are different, as most of the thorniest issues that dogged earlier VR incarnations have been solved, and significant financial resources are again being poured into the field in the hope that VR finally emerges as the next big thing in consumer entertainment.

The CFC has been actively experimenting with the latest wave of VR technology for the past two years. Visitors to our 2014 BBQ had to opportunity to strap on a head-mounted display and experience a VR immersion into Body/Mind/Change, our award winning digital extension of the TIFF exhibition David Cronenberg: Evolution. This year, the CFC is expanding the technology’s presence at the BBQ, thanks to demonstrations given by Toronto tech collective Occupied VR, as well as semiconductor giant AMD. The platform’s capacity as storytelling medium will be on full display in the VR Dome, and guests will have a first-hand opportunity to check out the very latest the technology has to offer.

Sasa Marinkovic, head of VR for chipmaker AMD, is an ardent believer in the potential for VR to transform not only how we interact with digital content, but also how we will come to experience the real world around us. His company is placing a big bet on VR, to the point where they’ve allotted significant resources towards a software development kit (SDK) called LiquidVR to aid in the development of immersive digital experiences. To Markinkovic, the best analogy for where things are currently at is the smartphone, pre the release of the iPhone. As in 2006, tens of thousands of developers are furiously working on creating applications for a technology that seems destined to rewrite the rulebook on human-computer interaction.

“We see VR as a new canvas for AMD to paint on” Marinkovic says. “We want to open up the possibilities for how creative stories can be told … and if we do our job properly, we will make the technology invisible.”

AMD’s hope is that VR will become another one of the highly disruptive technologies that are remaking media industries, and they want to ensure themselves a seat at the table, controlling a critical and irreplaceable piece of the new production pipeline.

Among the experiences the company will be showcasing at the VR Dome at the BBQ include a couple of jaw-dropping cinematic demos that leverage state-of-the-art video game content, rendered in a full, explore-it-from-any-angle fashion. If rampaging dinosaurs and military-style SWAT assaults aren’t what you had in mind for your first taste of the new reality, you might opt for the less pulse-quickening, but definitely more cerebral experience of exploring the human brain (Neuro, a partnership between AMD and GE), or joining the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk to relive the dawn of aviation (a partnership with the Smithsonian).

Typical of the many artist/developers who are eagerly putting technologies like LiquidVR through its paces is Toronto VX specialist J. Lee Williams, founder of the multi-disciplinary creative studio 1188. An award-winning film director who is also a talented illustrator and animator, he brings a wide range of skills to VR party, a breadth he sees as necessary in order to fully exploit the new medium.

“I was bored with flat film,” Williams says. “The first time I strapped on a VR headset I was floored … and hooked.”

Forming Occupied VR with his colleagues was a way to ensure that a rich mix of disciplines and backgrounds would continue to inform his team’s efforts to be at the forefront of virtual reality exploration. And the group has been active on the VR circuit, speaking at conferences and contributing to the fast-growing body of knowledge about how to most successfully employ the technology.

The collective will be exhibiting a number of experiences at the VR Dome, including the charming “ PaperDude VR”, the work of hybrid tech company GlobaCore that is described as an “homage to the 8-bit video game Paperboy.” Consisting of a Rift and a Microsoft Kinect rigged to a fitness exercycle, this novel VR experience was developed within a week of the original Oculus SDK release, has garnered a ton of press on tech blogs, and is a testament to the fact that rapid application development is clearly possible in the VR space.

Williams is also enthusiastic about another Globacore project called Graffiti VR, in which four of Toronto’s top street artists paint on invisible acrylic panels over the course of three days. Filmed with a custom GoPro rig consisting of 12 cameras and augmented with projection mapped light effects, the project demonstrates how real-world footage can be successfully and ingeniously merged with a digitally constructed environment.

And together with the CFC Media Lab, Occupied has put together a “Past Present and Future” VR exhibition that cleverly incorporates news reports from VR’s first wave in the 1990s (past); stunning, multi-layered 360 degree stereoscopic footage of skateboarders (present); as well as a glimpse at the potential of photoscanning technology to inject photorealistic avatars right into VR space (future).

What’s still unknown about this new VR revolution is who will win the platform race. The most widely talked about devices are Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Google’s Cardboard, and Samsung's Gear VR, all of which will be on display at the Dome. Platforms that provide full-body immersion akin to Star Trek’s Holodeck have not been as widely experienced by the public … yet. The most anticipated of those devices is HTC’s Vive, scheduled to launch commercially at the same time as the Oculus Rift in first quarter of 2016. Having premiered to rave reviews at GDC and Mobile World Congress earlier this year, the VIVE is now on a world tour and will also be on display in the VR Dome.

CFC Media Lab is experimenting and producing works for all these VR platforms as well as the other AR (augmented reality) devices such as the Google's Glass and Microsoft’s Hololens. At the same time, through their digital entertainment accelerator IDEABOOST, Media Lab is supporting and/or investing in companies who will be part of this new entertainment pipeline such as Bubl Technology, who recently raised $4.6 million dollars of seed financing.

“Since 2013, we’ve been bullish about the AR/VR space,” CFC Chief Digital Officer Ana Serrano says. “’We created the first Google Glass/Wearable Production Lab in Canada and produced one of the first real time photo effects application on Glass, called Shard. And now, we’re excited to be presenting HTC’s Vive to BBQ attendees in our VR Dome.”

Serrano was an early convert to potential of Vive, which “blew her away” when she first experienced it last spring in Santa Monica, at the studios of WEVR, one of ten developers asked by HTC to create a prototype for the Vive. HTC and AMD will be showcasing TheBlu: Encounter a WEVR project that promises “uncanny scale and unexpected empathy” as one comes face-to-face with an 80 foot blue whale, and which was produced in conjunction with top Hollywood film talent, as well as an army of crack VR developers.

It is precisely that unique mix of traditional filmmaking know-how, combined with prowess in the coding department, that makes creating compelling VR experiences a challenge, but one that the CFC is uniquely poised to take on. As Serrano puts it, “Understanding intimately how these platforms work, and what stories work best for them by producing our own works, provides a unique value proposition for our accelerator IDEABOOST. We are one of the few accelerators 'who eat our own dogfood' -- the companies in the VR space we invest in are those whose products we want and know how to use.”

It is abundantly clear that VR is experiencing something of a renaissance, and that things have come a long way from the days of Nintendo PowerGloves and VPL Eyephones. Still, many unanswered questions remain. For AMD’s Marinkovic, whose team is busy solving the computational challenges of the new medium, fundamental questions like “How long should a typical VR experience be?” are hard to pin down, and will require storytellers to let go of some long-held creative shibboleths.

“Film directors are used to telling stories one way,” Marinkovic says. “In the future, they’re going to have to get used to looking through the eyes of the end user, and recognize that they too can be their own director.”

What inspires Williams most about the brave new world of VR storytelling is how it provides a much deeper understanding of both the human psyche and how we perceive the everyday world around us. “There will come a time when VR will succeed in tricking us,” Williams maintains. “And the idea of that day coming is both scary and exciting to me.”

For now, a race is on to demonstrate the potential of the new medium, as the gap between what is real and what is virtual starts to close in on us. VR, as an art form, may not have produced its signature defining expression yet, but that moment is likely coming sooner than we think.